Bringing Out Inner Speech:
A Union of Theater and Psychology
By: Meghan Dwyer

            In the scientific world, medical doctors record physical growth in part based on height, weight and strength. When combined, this information not only defines an individual’s growth, but also helps doctors to identify changes in a patient’s condition, such as strengths and weaknesses. Based on solid data provided by physical observation and technology, doctors can determine if a part of the body is physically malfunctioning, if it is growing stronger, or if there is no change in condition.

While medicine is very advanced regarding physical changes, very few fields attempt to map mental changes. Doctors can monitor activity in the physical brain, but they cannot determine exact thoughts within the abstract mind. It is extremely challenging to identify mental changes because they are not tangible. Technology allows doctors to create maps of the brain and it is possible to see what parts of the brain are active or inactive when stimulated with thoughts. When a person makes a decision, assesses a moral, grasps a concept, or defines an emotion, brain-mass remains the same, only an individual’s actions change. Therefore, the only way to investigate change within a person’s mind is through observation of his actions.  These actions are a result of a person’s inner dialogue and are a direct effect of self-examination within the mind (Morin 2003).

What we say to ourselves represents a cornerstone in the way we think and act (Morin, 1993, p. 224). Unfortunately, exact thoughts are slippery. Meta-cognition is immeasurable. Therefore, psychologists like Piaget and Vygotsky have concluded that the best way to study thoughts is through observation of an individual’s actions. These psychologists operate on the premise that actions that are not reflexes are direct representations of an individual’s thoughts (Morin & Everett, 1990). No one can experience another individual’s thoughts to understand how they cause the actions that result, but psychologists may be able to explore inner speech through the field of drama.

Performance Theater is an academic area that explores mental growth. Playwrights create characters who change throughout a dramatic performance. On stage, characters often go through a process of self-discovery, making decisions, rethinking actions, and predicting their future behaviors. When examined from a psychological point of view, “Character is seen less as a role for an actor and more as a sequence of impressions in our minds” (Styan, 1960, p. 6). While attending performances, audiences observe the mental changes in the characters, just as doctors monitor the physical changes in their patients. Characters share their inner thoughts through asides and soliloquies just as people talk to themselves in their minds while thinking through possible actions or events. The playwright reveals the secret of the character’s mind within this private dialogue (Hirsch, 1997, p. 1).

While comparing theater to practical psychology may seem like an unusual idea, in fact, playwrights as far back as Shakespeare have used soliloquy-based character development to explore the inner-psyche of their characters. This allows audiences to experience the thoughts of these characters. By providing this inner speech to the audience, a playwright demonstrates how a person changes mentally over time. While the change does not have to be positive or negative, it is inevitably a personal revaluation. The character uncovers information about himself through his personal dialogue and reveals this information simultaneously to the audience. In theater this is called character development. In psychology it is called inner speech. Playwrights apply the concept of inner speech as they develop characters for the stage just as psychologists apply inner speech to mental development as they examine the development of self-awareness.


The Parameters of Inner Speech: Setting the Scene

Psychology is a very new field in scientific exploration. Other sciences, such as physics and chemistry have been around for hundreds of years, whereas in-depth psychology has only been around since the mid-1800s. Inner speech is an even newer area of exploration. In fact, it is so new, that psychologists have just begun to realize the importance of this psychological process. Because inner speech is so new, there are many definitions, but none is accepted as a universal definition. Alain Morin, the leader in this field of investigation, has the most concise and explored definition at present. Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, inner speech, also known as “internal-dialogue” or “self-talk,” is the cognitive process of self-reflection, the act of speaking to one’s self about one’s self (Morin, 1993, p. 223).

Vygotsky and Piaget classify inner speech as the direct cause of self-awareness; however, researchers often ignore inner speech because it is self-evident. Many psychologists assume that if individuals change their behaviors in order to meet socially acceptable standards or to make non-conformist statements, their self-analysis is inherent. These psychologists take inner speech for granted because they do not recognize that the nature of this process requires exploration (Morin & Everett, 1990, Morin, 1993). They study how a person changes, what decisions he makes, what he bases decisions on, but not what inner thought process leads to the decision itself. Morin (2003) counters this passive perspective, stating that “[Inner speech] allows us to verbally identify and process information about our current mental experiences (e.g., emotions, thoughts, attitudes, goals, motives, sensations)” (p. 2). In order to make a decision, a person must first go through this internal-dialogue. Therefore, psychologists should give more recognition to the process of inner speech.

It is possible to study the physical actions that cause a change as well as the physical actions that result, but ultimately, psychologists have difficulties proving that specific actions are the results of certain thoughts within internal-dialogue. Like in any scientific experiment, to prove the cause of an event, in this case the cause of a decision, psychologists need to experiment in a controlled environment. In the case of psychology, the mind exists within the environment of society. But, because the environment of society contains many pressures that can influence an individual to make a decisions, inner speech, the originator of all change, does not receive credit for decision that is made.

Morin and Everett (1990) assert that the influences that can cause an individual to make a decision are either social, environmental, or self-induced. All of these influences serve the same purpose: to reveal information to the individual about himself. In the category of Social and environmental are public influences that effect a person from the outside world, bringing in new information as a result of new interactions. Social influences include peers and the media, while environmental influences include mirrors, photographs, and video-tapes. On the contrary, a self-induced or private element is information gathered from within an individual’s thoughts which cause an individual to react to himself (Morin 1993). Public influences can be internalized and then combined to create a private dialogue, inner speech. For example, if a woman wants to choose something to wear for an evening out, first she will think about past experiences, comments from other people and media influences. Then, she will assess her own expectations, and after discussing in her mind the options for the evening, she will finally choose an outfit. By gathering information from herself regarding her goals, she makes a decision on how best to meet her own expectations. Inner speech is a combination of many different influences that are channeled through one mental process.

When combining influences to make a decision, an individual can process the information socially or privately. A person is said to be deciding socially if he discusses this decision with others. This is not inner speech because, while a person may be reflecting on a decision, it is not internal. The process is focused on an outside audience as opposed to being a private reflection. Private decisions are based solely on an individual’s inner-thought process and do not involve other people. An example of a private influence would be a person changing because he has thought about himself and through this inner-dialogue in which he “verbally [labeled] different self-dimensions,” he decided that he must change because of personal “values, attitudes and goals” (Morin, 2003, p. 5).  Because concepts like values and morals are so individualized and personal, inner speech is a non-tangible, personal concept that may never be completely explained or revealed. However, it is clear that “being in a state of self-awareness is likely to result in the acquisition of more information [and] highly self-conscious people will know better how and what they really are” (Morin & Everett, 1990, p. 345).

Ultimately, psychologists apply inner speech to many mental processes. Inner speech connects problem solving, self-knowledge, inner development, and social interaction. First, it is a tool that can help determine the nature of decision making. Individuals ponder what they should choose when faced with problems and they base their choice on self-dialogue. Next, inner speech is also a strong provider of self-knowledge. Not only does this individual make a choice, but she reflects on why this is the right choice based on her individual needs, expectations, and past experiences. If she has been in a similar situation before, but makes a different choice the second time, psychologists believe this indicates inner development. Something in her mind has changed and caused her to make a different, presumably better choice based on her self-assessment. Finally, inner speech applies to social interaction. When the individual makes a new choice, researchers presume that this choice is a result of personal as well as social factors. The choice will effect the individual in a social settings as well as private ones.


The Study of Inner Speech: Writing the Dialogue

More often than not, psychologists study inner speech in children. Compared to adults, children are more likely to speak their thoughts aloud unprovoked, like actors performing a soliloquy on stage. Recently, some psychologists have begun studying adults, which has helped the scientific community to recognize inner speech as a progressive rather than a regressive evolutionary process. While adults are much less likely to speak their personal thoughts aloud, psychologists starting with Vygotsky believe that the lack of  verbalization is due to the fact that inner speech goes “underground” but continues to flourish (Morin & Everett 1990, p. 347). Children do not lose this mental process, rather as they age, they realize that it is not socially acceptable to speak all of their personal thoughts aloud, and they internalize their personal dialogue.

Because adults become self-conscious of verbal reflection, it is a challenge to create a believable environment that adequately demonstrates the value and existence of inner speech. Experiments focus on the “think aloud” approach, in which an adult is placed either in an empty room or in front of a mirror and then asked to verbalize any thoughts. Experimenters do not encourage needless verbalization, as this would skew data. They do ask the subjects to talk if they feel inclined to do so. It is most important that the subjects do not feel the pressure of an observer or pressure to create false verbalizations. Because research is based on experiments of this kind, one can see that data might not be very accurate (Morin & Everett, 1990, p. 348). For adults, it is challenging to voice most personal thoughts and not socially acceptable. Therefore, verbalizations are uncomfortable and subjects are inclined to distort their responses.

Currently, Alain Morin and other psychologists are working together to create a functional and accessible scale that would measure inner speech. The foundation of this idea comes from Michael Siegrist’s Self Consciousness Scale which was designed to measure the speech that “we typically use to examine ourselves.” With his scale, Siegrist proved that “the more we talk to ourselves, the more we become self-aware” (Morin, 2003, p. 2). In the same way, a scale that measures inner speech would provide a way for psychologists to categorize the degree to which individuals talk to themselves about themselves (Morin & Everett 1990). Morin predicts that while children have a higher incidence of verbal inner speech, mentally healthy adults continue the process of inner speech as often as children.


The Evolution of Inner Speech: Character Development

Inner speech is what ultimately helps change a toddler’s mind into an adolescent mind. “[It] is probably one of the most important cognitive processes needed in the development of the cognitive self” (Morin & Everett, 1990, p. 342). For example, a two-year-old walks around with a crayon stuck in his nose. “Oh, He’s just going through a stage,” says his mother. A teenager gets her ears pierced. And her nose. And her belly-button. “It’s just a stage,” says her father. It is not uncommon to hear a parent utter this typical phrase. Beginning when a child is very young, parents complain of the terrible-twos and then suddenly a child is a moody and unpredictable adolescent. While these terms have been branded as stereotypical, as all children are not alike in their actions and reactions, there are, however, certain attributes of each age category that ring true. Not only are there physical changes associated with each age group, but also mental changes of attitude, morals, expectations and goals

Morin and Everett(1990) remark that when describing inner speech in children, Piaget used the term “egocentric speech,” referring to the fact that children are inclined to speak many of their thoughts aloud without any “preoccupation with being understood or with trying to adapt their discourse for others” (347). In children, outwardly verbalized inner speech serves very little positive function but is more like a constant narration. It is a measurable “manifestation of children’s cognitive immaturity” (Morin & Everett, 1990, p. 347). Sometimes directed to an invisible audience, children spontaneously narrate their activities, stating that something should happen and then causing this event to happen. For example, if a young girl is playing with building blocks, she might describe where the blocks should be stacked to make the perfect tower and why they should be stacked there, meanwhile completing the actions that she is describing. She is acquiring “verbal self-information” by following her narration and talking about the cause and effects of the stacking of the blocks (Morin, 1993, p. 227).

While it is a big leap from stacking building blocks to making moral decisions, children quickly grow into adolescents. “As children grow older, the [outward expression of inner speech] is inhibited, ambitions are not disclosed…and some speech becomes entirely covert” (Morin & Everett, 1990, p. 343). Once a child reaches adolescence, there is a notable change in attitude. One of the most common descriptors of this age group is self-conscious. Teenagers are known for “feeling uncomfortable with [themselves] for unknown reasons” and “constantly thinking about themselves” (Morin & Everett, 1990, p. 339). They are at a point in their lives where they are deciding whether to place more value on social and environmental influences or the private influences. No longer sharing their inner-dialogue aloud, teenagers are a mysterious group. While not all teenagers follow this pattern, they are often very concerned with matching an “ideal representation of a self aspect” that is presented by peers and the media. Healthy “self-evaluation” turns to unproductive “self-criticism,” as they focus on the discrepancy between the self and the ideal rather than on self-improvement based on achievable change (Morin & Everett, 1990, p. 338).

Once a person becomes an adult, she is most likely to move on from the stage of unhealthy self-criticism. Adults can adequately “compare their current states with their standards or goals and try to conform to them” (Morin, 1993, p. 224). They accept social and environmental influences but also recognize the value private influences in decision making. Adults are self-aware and accept their inner dialogue as a source of self-information. Inner speech is a mediator in the adult mind that weighs pros and cons, makes comparisons, and assesses situations. The reason inner speech is difficult to identify in adults is because it is “highly understated.” Rather than describing individual thoughts and desires, inner speech may be disguised as a person taking someone else’s perspective. This alternate perspective is an adult’s method of creating an “objective vision of oneself, which was originally dependent upon the presence of others” (Morin, 1993, p. 227-228). An adult can produce an expert combination of social, environmental, and self influences which results in true inner speech. Like a playwright, an individual creates a dialogue with her self about her self that results in the acquisition of knowledge of the self.


Inner Speech Applied to Theater: Suspension of Disbelief

                When a playwright creates a play, she has many options of how present the piece of drama. The two most common options are through plot development or character development. If she chooses to write a play driven by plot development, or events, the drama will focus on what happens during the play: what the play is about. Drama powered by plot can include devices such as foreshadowing, suspense, action, and conflict which propel the play along the playwright’s desired course (Styan, 1960, p.158). Character development on the other hand is Who the play is about. In this case, drama is driven by the character’s dialogues and soliloquies, ultimately causing the audience to focus more on who the characters are, not what is happening to them. “Plot…arises from the characters” rather than the plot being something that happens to the characters (Short, 1949, p. 61). Playwrights who are more focused on characters than plot use inner speech as a dramatic device to show that the characters’ thoughts cause the plot.

            For the most part, the inner moral and spiritual thoughts of characters are revealed through asides and soliloquies. Asides are brief side comments by a character addressed either to himself or to an individual person and “guarded from the hearing of other characters” (Hirsch, 1997, p. 2). Asides are a form of public speech, and while they do provide secret information to the audience, they are not considered inner speech. Soliloquies, or interior monologues, are long speeches made by a character that are addressed solely to himself. The purpose of a soliloquy is “to represent the innermost thoughts of a character” (Hirsch, 1997, p. 1). Some characters recognize the fact that they are voicing these thoughts aloud, and others do not. In Shakespeare, “soliloquizers often mention in passing that they are speaking or express concern about being overheard” (Hirsch, 1997, p. 5). If this is the case, the characters may not be completely revealing their thoughts due to a fear of being heard. Sometimes the character makes comments to the audience during soliloquies, but normally it is a private self-reflection. Because a soliloquy is designed to be a revelation , the audience experiences changes and decision making within and character during the soliloquy. While changes may not necessarily be positive, and decisions may be choices not to act rather than definite choices of action, the audience is still permitted into the realm of a character’s mind. A soliloquy is inner speech, but on the outside.

            One of the most famous plays that incorporates many soliloquies is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The last passage of Act 2, Scene 2 is an excellent example of inner speech within theater. Hamlet begins by announcing “Now I am alone” and then he proceeds to assess his current mental state. Calling himself names like “rogue and peasant slave,” and questioning himself, asking if he is a “coward,” Hamlet compares himself to an actor playing the role of Hecuba who dashes her son’s head into sharp rocks so that he might not be exploited and killed by an invading enemy. Hamlet sees this actor’s grief as an ideal and cannot understand why he is not as moved as this actor pretends to be even though he has just learned that his uncle, Claudius, betrayed his father. Like the unsteady, confused adolescent, Hamlet has fallen to self-criticism based on an ideal rather than self-evaluation.

After defining his insufficient ability to behave as what he considered to be the ideal person, Hamlet develops a plan for revenge so that he might start to reach the ideal of appropriate emotional reaction:

I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course.


Just like the toddler narrating the construction of her building blocks, Hamlet narrates his actions in the play. He pieces together the plot and maps out the actions required to make himself a more acceptable “son of a dear father murder'd.” He will have the actors perform a replication of his father’s murder. If Claudius reacts in a way that signifies guilt, he will kill his uncle.  Through inner speech, Hamlet has assessed himself, gained information about his current situation and made decisions about how he will act in the future. Clearly, while Shakespeare did not have the knowledge about psychology that is in existence today, he recognized that self-reflection, or inner speech, is the root of all actions.


An Experiment in Inner Speech: 1,000 Times

                I wrote 1,000 Times in order to determine if a playwright could create a drama consisting of only inner speech. Most writers use some form of thought representation in their writing, as they desire their characters to be as believable as possible, but few playwrights have created plays that directly present only the thoughts of the characters. While it was impossible to create a play with true inner speech motivating the characters, as the play would then be a pantomime, instead I developed soliloquies in which the characters vocalize their inner speech. The characters never interact socially during the performance, so they are clearly not directly causing each other to think and possibly change. However, on an individual basis, they still choose to change or not to change as a clear result of their inner dialogue. Therefore, the characters exhibit the nature of this convoluted psychological concept.

In the script, each character is identified as a representative from a specific age group, following Piaget’s view of the ego-centric child who develops into a self-aware adult. The three characters react to an event as is appropriate to their stage of metal development. By creating an offstage event to which all of the characters react, I created a situation which demonstrates how different age groups react mentally to a similar predicament. In addition to making the characters react to this event, the situation to which the characters are reacting remains undefined so that the members of the audience can also react as is appropriate to their stage of development. This demonstrates that not only do the characters exhibit inner speech, but the audience members do, as well.

Maggie, the child in the group, is clearly ego-centric. Because she constantly references a desire to terminate the problem without working through it, she demonstrates that inner speech for children is not a productive cognitive process. Rather than trying to fix things, she merely describes the problems that have arisen. Maggie is concerned about the fact that she cannot go to the movies and that her sister’s punishment is also a punishment for her, too. She has just realized that her actions can effect other people, just as they can effect her. Never voicing concern for the well-being of her sister, Maggie is unable to take someone else’s point of view. At one point, she states that “I just can’t understand her.” She never measures what is right or wrong, and only desires to help her sister so that she can complete her quest of going to the movies. At the end of the play, it seems as though she has had a break-through when she admits to herself that she could have made the situation better and says that:

Next time, I’ll just say that I am sorry.
And then Charlie will not have to lie.
And Mom will not get mad.
And our family will get better.
And I’ll get to go to the movies.


Like Hamlet, Maggie lays out the rest of her personal plot, adding the pieces like building blocks onto a tower. However, she still ends her decisions on a very ego-centric note, which shows that Maggie is not yet ready to leave the concrete world of actions for the abstract world of morals and ideals.

Charlotte or Charlie, exists in the midst of her own adolescent world. As her name indicates, in some ways she is still a child like Maggie, but at the same time, she is on her way to being an adult. Charlotte claims that she is not “a baby like Maggie anymore” but she is volatile and still needs the guidance of her mother. Her world is one of questioning and doubt. She comes up with quick solutions like running away, but it is clear that these ideas are fleeting and she will not carry them through because she is more sensible than that. Charlotte claims that because her mother has impressed the title of liar upon her, she has to accept this incorrect label. She is an adolescent because she does not know whose ideals to follow: her own or her mother’s. By the end of the play, she is moving from self-criticism to self-evaluation because she sees that life could be easier. Charlotte is critical of her mother, not just because she is an unsteady and untrusting adolescent, but because she is on the verge of being an adult and she is discovering how she wants to live her own life. She is developing her own morals and ideals rather than focusing solely on pleasing her mother:

What do I need to do for her to see that I am better than this?
How am I supposed to learn if I don’t make mistakes?
Does not she know that I see the consequences of my actions?
Not every little thing is a big deal.

Charlotte is much more aware of her actions than Maggie. Like Hamlet, she sees that she is stuck in a situation that will not end unless she takes action. She recognizes that she can learn from mistakes because she has developed her own healthy road to self-evaluation. She ends the play by taking a stand and declaring that she will not be pushed aside. While shaky and unsure at times, Charlotte is well on her way to becoming a healthy young adult.

            Maggie and Charlotte’s mother is the adult in this scenario. Like all parents, she is dealing with her own problems on top of those of her daughters. The two main differences between the mom and her daughters is that she is much more capable of looking at a situation from a different perspective, and she is able to push away outside influences when they seem overwhelming. While at first it seems that she is an unsympathetic character, Mom reveals that she just wants the best for her daughters as well as for herself. After getting over her initial anger and frustration, Mom identifies the real reason why she needs her daughter to act like an adult: “I need her help in this. I’ve tried to do it alone, and I can’t.” She ponders changing her goals and demands on her daughter, but because she feels the need to stay strong, her internal argument results in sticking to her decisions. Mom does not want to compromise her ideals not only to prove to herself that she is strong, but also to prove her strength to her daughter. After this conversation with herself, about herself, Mom learns that she needs to recognize her daughter as a young adult and not a child and Mom discovers that she is weak and needs to work with her daughters to keep the family from falling apart. While she questions her decisions, Mom ultimately sticks with the punishment she has given her daughter, but she states that next time she will think things through more carefully. Inner speech prevents her from becoming stuck in a hopeless cycle. She recognizes the need for change in her actions, and because she has self-evaluated, next time “everything will be better.”


Conclusion: Going Through Stages

            Just as actors cross the stage during a play, all people go through stages in life. The development of inner speech allows the mind to progress from one stage to another and prevents us from losing our identity. The self-awareness that results from the process of inner speech provides a constant reminder of our goals, morals and ideals. Like Hamlet, we are all struggling with identity and confusing choices, but we know that we need to choose the blocks that are right for our own towers. As psychologists delve deeper into this new area of inner speech, they can turn to Hamlet and Charlotte and see that inner speech might not be so far below the surface as it seems.


Hirsh, J. (1997) Shakespeare and the history of soliloquies. Modern Language Quarterly,          58(1), 1-26.

Morin, A. (2003, April) Inner speech and conscious experience: Talking to ourselves is important in developing a sense of self. Science and Consciousness Review, 4, 1-6.

---  (1993, Summer) Self-talk and self-awareness: On the nature of the relation. Journal of         Mind and Behavior,14(3), 223-234.

Morin, A., & Everett, J. (1990). Inner speech as a mediator of self-awareness, self-                  consciousness, and self-knowledge: An hypothesis. New Ideas in Psychology, 8(3),       337-356.

Short, E. (1949). Introducing the Theater. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode Publishers.

Styan, J.L. (1960) The Elements of Drama. Cambridge: University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1994) Imagination and creativity of the adolescent. In R. Van der Veer &        J. Valsiner (eds.): The Vygotsky Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.



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